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The Elephant Guardians


Photography exhibit by Ami Vitale

Ami Vitale’s exhibition in the Winter Garden Gallery celebrates the powerful story of Reteti, the first ever community owned and operated elephant sanctuary in Africa. Reteti provides a home to orphaned elephants who have been displaced because of poaching, human wildlife conflict and drought related issues. The exhibition offers a glimpse into the powerful story of this community coming together to protect and save the magnificent creatures.

Vitale will also discuss her documentation of climate change and conservation with Miya Ando and Kendal Henry  on Thursday, July 20 from 6-8pm. Learn more.

“The Elephant Guardians” is presented by Arts Brookfield in partnership with Photoville and Photoville’ s annual city-wide festival.

From afar, the cries of a baby elephant in distress seem almost human. Drawn by the sounds, young Samburu warriors, long spears in hand, thread their way toward a wide riverbed, where they find the victim. The calf is half-submerged in sand and water, trapped in one of the hand-dug wells that dot the valley. Only its narrow back can be seen—and its trunk, waving back and forth like a cobra.

As recently as a year ago, the men likely would have dragged the elephant out before it could pollute the water and would have left it to die. But this day they do something different: Using a cell phone, ubiquitous even in remotest Kenya, they send a message to Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, about six miles away. Then they sit and wait.

Reteti lies within an 975,000-acre swath of thorny scrubland in northern Kenya known as the Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust—part of the ancestral homeland of the Samburu people. The region includes the Turkana, Rendille, Borana, and Somali, as well as the Samburu—ethnic groups that have fought to the death over the land and its resources. Now they’re working together to strengthen their communities and protect the estimated 6,000 elephants they live, sometimes uneasily, alongside.

The riverbed that the Samburu men have come to looks dry and unyielding, but just below the surface is water. Elephants can smell water, and Samburu families, guided by elephants’ scrapings have dug narrow wells to reach the cold, clean, mineral-rich elixir.

The warriors don’t have to wait long before a Reteti rescue team arrives in a custom-built Land Cruiser, led by Joseph Lolngojine and Rimland Lemojong, both Samburu. The men have seen this before and go to work swiftly, digging out the sides of the well, widening its mouth so that two of them can step in and slip a harness under the elephant’s belly. Then perhaps 12 hours after the mishap, the rescuers, grunting with the effort, hoist the little elephant into the morning sunlight.

Now comes another wait, this time much longer. Elephants are creatures of habit, and more often than not a herd will return to familiar places to drink, and the hope is that this baby, a female, will be reunited with her mother and family.

Lolngojine and Lemojong walk the elephant, weakened and dehydrated, into protective shade at the edge of the valley. Gauze is laid over her eyes to protect them from the sun, water is poured over her head, and a wool blanket laid over her back. She’s going into shock, so a saline rehydration solution is prepared in a half-gallon feeding bottle. With a little trial and error, the calf finds the nipple, sucks greedily, then collapses into a deep sleep.

Through the afternoon and into the evening, the men keep offering the saline as the agitated baby cries plaintively for her family. By dusk the singing wells are quiet. In the moonlit dark the gray hulk of a big bull materializes to drink. The baby, perhaps mistaking the elephant for her mother, begins to follow the form, with Lolngojine and Lemojong behind her. After a while, spooked by the shouts of hyenas, she trundles back to her Samburu minders. The imprinting on human surrogates has begun. All night the team sits vigil, waiting, hoping, straining ears for the rumblings of her herd. At dawn, some 36 hours after the warriors found the elephant, waiting is no longer an option. They lift the elephant, swaddled in blankets, into the vehicle and head for the sanctuary.

Nestled within the crook of a half-moon-shaped ridge, Reteti elephant orphanage was established in 2016 by local Samburus. The need for elephant orphanages like Reteti is a sad result of the decimation of herds by ivory poachers in recent decades and today the greatest threat is because of an ongoing drought. Elephant numbers are now a fraction of what they were.

The loss of elephants has a ripple effect on other animals. Elephants are ecosystem “engineers” who feed on low brush and bulldoze small trees, promoting growth of grasses, which in turn attract bulk grazers like buffalo, endangered Grevy’s zebras, elands, and oryxes, themselves prey for carnivores: lions, cheetahs, wild dogs, leopards.

For pastoralists like the Samburu, more grass means more food for their cattle, one reason why indigenous communities have begun relating to elephants, animals long feared, in a new way. “We take care of the elephants, and the elephants are taking care of us,” Lemojong says. “We now have a relationship between us.”

What is happening here at Reteti, without fanfare, is nothing less than the beginnings of a transformation in how Samburus relate to wild creatures they have long feared. This oasis where little Kinya and the others will grow up and one day rejoin their herds is as much about people as it is about elephants.

About Ami Vitale:
Ami Vitale is a National Geographic photographer, writer, speaker, and documentary filmmaker whose award-winning work illuminates the unsung heroes and communities working to protect wildlife and finding harmony in our natural world.

About Photoville Festival:
New York City’s free premier photography destination is back! Returning for its 12th consecutive year, the annual Photoville Festival will feature the return of the Photoville Village in Brooklyn Bridge Park with some of its classic shipping containers.

Collaborating with an outstanding group of artists and programming partners to curate and present over 85 outdoor exhibitions in more than 20 locations city-wide, Photoville Festival addresses a wide range of issues giving visitors a unique experience of thought-provoking and exceptional photography from across the globe.

From June 3-18, 2023, this year’s festival is sure to bring an experience filled with events, workshops, talks, and installations that continue to keep us connected in the photography community.


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